It seemed that Andrew Nielsen was always second in line while progressing through the Red Deer minor hockey ranks.
Nielsen found his way on to the elite bantam and midget teams, but not on his first attempt. Now he’s a front-line Western Hockey League defenceman who might very well be just one year away from playing for pay.
So, would labelling him as a ‘late bloomer’ be fair?
“Absolutely, that’s just kind of how its been through my whole career,” the 19-year-old Lethbridge Hurricanes blueliner said this week. “It kind of sucked when I was younger and never made those (elite minor) teams, but now I think it’s starting to pay off.”
Indeed, the kid who didn’t earn a major bantam spot and a position with the Red Deer midget AAA Chiefs on his first try but was successful the second time around, was selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the third round of this year’s NHL entry draft and on Nov. 23 signed an entry-level deal with the team.
“It’s just been a crazy time the last couple of years,” said Nielsen, who credits former midget AAA head coach Doug Quinn for helping him refine his game to the point where he earned regular employment with the ‘Canes last year, one season removed from playing with the Chiefs.
“Doug helped me gain confidence and believe in my game,” said the Hurricanes rearguard. “I had a good (WHL rookie) season last year … team wise it wasn’t great, but personally it was all right. Getting drafted was a huge step and gave me a little more confidence in my game. Now I just have to keep moving forward and progressing as a player.”
Nielsen attended the Leafs prospect camp and then the team’s main camp in September.
“That was awesome, it was good to go down there and experience how the pros act and go about their lives every day,” he said. “It was a learning experience … I took a lot out of it.”
He returned to Lethbridge in late September and almost immediately started to take his game to another level. After scoring seven goals and collecting 24 points as a ‘Canes rookie, the six-foot-three, 207-pound Nielsen is currently the WHL’s second-highest scoring defenceman with seven goals and 27 points in 27 games.
“It’s a matter of having a little more experience and maturity in my game,” he said. “I’m playing with better players, too. We have eight players with over 20 points so far this season, so I think some of my success is due to them.”
Nielsen also credits first-year head coach Brent Kisio and general manager Peter Anholt for the breakout season both he and the Hurricanes, as a team, are experiencing. The ‘Canes won all of 20 games last season, but now, at 18-9-0-0, trail the Eastern Conference front-running Red Deer Rebels by a mere two points with the teams set to clash Saturday at Lethbridge.
“Brent and Peter have been great for us,” said Nielsen. “Brent is a coach you can go to for anything … he lets you have your input. He doesn’t let you run wild on the ice but gives you the freedom that if you’re a smart player you can make the play.
“He’s a firm coach, he’ll let you know that when something is going wrong we need to fix it. But when you’re doing well he’s your No. 1 cheerleader.”
Anholt took on the dual role of GM/head coach one year ago when Brad Robson and bench boss Drake Berehowsky were fired, and helped the ‘Canes turn a corner in the New Year. The team’s progress has carried over, thanks in part to the off-season acquisitions of overage skaters Cory Millette, Justin Gutierrez and Arvin Atwal, but mostly due to a new team chemistry and attitude.
“Last year was tough, but we didn’t change a whole lot of personnel in the dressing room,” said Nielsen. “Everyone just went home and kind of got refreshed and came back ready to go. Everyone was ready to work and work hard for Pete and Brent and give the fans what they’ve deserved — a winning season. I think we’ve done a good job of that and we’re going to continue to push here before the Christmas break.”
Nielsen was first introduced to the WHL brand over 10 years ago as a stick boy/water boy for his hometown Rebels.
“I started when I was even or eight and continued to when I was about 15,” he said.
It was during his earlier years of association with the Rebels that he became a huge fan of defenceman and current Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf.
“When he was on the (Rebels) I looked up to him and kind of idolized him,” said Nielsen. “When I was in Toronto in the fall he took time to talk to me and we kind of hung out. He’s a great guy and a great leader and definitely someone to look up to.
“Obviously the Toronto connection is there now and it’s just kind of cool having that.”
By signing Nielsen to a contract, the Leafs clearly envision the day that he and Phaneuf are teammates.
“I was his partner one day in camp for one of the practices,” said Nielsen. “It was an unreal experience sharing the ice and being his ‘D’ partner. It was pretty cool, for sure.”
The experience of signing his NHL pact was equally as thrilling.
“It was an exciting day,” he said. “Coming into the season that was one of my goals — to get them (Leafs) talking and maybe get a contract. The way it happened, it was great. It showed me that they believed in me. Now that it’s happened I just have to keep playing my game.”
Because he will turn 20 in November of next year, Nielsen will be eligible to play with the Leafs’ American League team — the Toronto Marlies — in the 2016-17 season, providing he doesn’t stick with the big club.
“It would be awesome to play pro next year, but if I end up back here that’s OK too,” he said. “I don’t want to rush into anything but you always want to play at the highest level possible.”